August 25, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: At-Risk Status of Victim Need Not Be Known to Defendant to Apply

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Nardine on Thursday, June 2, 2016.

C.R.S. § 18-6.5-103(7)(c)—Mens Rea Element—At-Risk Juvenile—Prosecutorial Misconduct—Character Evidence—Other Acts Evidence.

Nardine was convicted of unlawful sexual conduct on an at-risk juvenile.

On appeal, Nardine contended that C.R.S. § 18-6.5-103(7)(c) has an implied mens rea element that requires the prosecution to prove that a defendant knew of the victim’s at-risk status. He thus argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict him and the trial court erroneously instructed the jury by submitting a special interrogatory that did not include a mens rea for the at-risk element. The court of appeals disagreed with his interpretation of the statute. A defendant need not know that the victim is “at-risk” in order to be convicted of unlawful sexual contact on an at-risk juvenile. Consequently, Nardine’s challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence and the special interrogatory were rejected.

Nardine also contended that numerous instances of prosecutorial misconduct during closing argument, in their totality, rose to the level of plain error and required reversal of his conviction. Under the circumstances of this case, the prosecutor improperly (1) characterized the defense theory as a disingenuous scheme commonly perpetuated by defense attorneys to take advantage of victims with mental illness to obtain wrongful acquittals; (2) appealed to the jurors’ religious beliefs and “lambasted” the defense theory by characterizing it as an attack on these beliefs; (3) argued that defense counsel did not believe his own client; (4) argued facts outside the record; and (5) vouched for witness credibility. Because the misconduct so undermined the fundamental fairness of the trial as to cast serious doubt on the reliability of the verdict, reversal was required.

Additionally, Nardine contended that the trial court should have excluded CRE 404(a) character evidence that he was “a sexual predator” and “not a very good person,” and CRE 404(b) evidence of specific other acts of sexual misconduct. The witness statements about Nardine being “not a good person” and a “sexual predator” were inadmissible under CRE 404(a). Evidence of other acts of sexual misconduct against others, however, was permissible to show that Nardine had a similar intent, motive, common plan, scheme, and method of operation.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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